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“Later on in my ministry I faced another crisis that equally influenced the writing of my books. It came after I had already been a pastor for ten years in the U.S. and a missionary to Europe for five years. Throughout this period one thing was dinned into my thinking: ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘is there so little reality among orthodox evangelical Christians? Why is there so little beauty in the way Christians deal with one another?’

This led to doubt about the reality of spiritual things in my own life. I realized that although I had been studying for years and although I had been active in Christian ministry and although I was becoming more and more known in certain Christian circles, the reality of my own spiritual life was diminished. Somehow I had lost what I had when I first became a Christian.

For about two months I walked out in the Swiss mountains. When it rained, I walked in the old hayloft above our chalet. And as I prayed, I went all the way back to my agnosticism. With as much honesty as I could, I asked myself, ‘Was I right in becoming a Christian as a young man?’ The unreality I had found in the Christian world, the ugliness I saw in Christian relationships, the fact that Christians were not able to talk to twentieth-century people--all these made me ask, ‘Was I right?'”

Francis A. Schaeffer, “Why and how I write my books,” Eternity Magazine, March 1973.

We are grateful for Christian history. It shows us we are not alone, as we see how God has helped others. They make our own path today a little less dark.

Some years ago I faced a crisis similar to Schaeffer’s. For the first time in my life I had to wonder, Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. I thought God loved me. But maybe the truth is, God hates my guts. After all, look at the facts. Certain experiences confronted me with realities so opposite to everything I had always believed that I had to rethink at a foundational level. I had to account, especially, for two things. One, why isn’t God more real to me and others? Why isn’t he more satisfying, more captivating to us? Why does the living God make so little difference to us, the very ones who claim to stand for God in a godless world? Two, why is there so little beauty in how we treat one another? Why is there so much ugliness, even brutality, toward one another?

I came to see that these two problems are interrelated. There is a reason why people who believe God is love (1 John 4:7-8) treat one another with unlove. The reason is not a lack of theological orthodoxy about God. The reason is a lack of personal reality with God. A theoretical God of love can be defended as a doctrinal concept, even while being denied as a practical reality. But unreality with God inevitably shows: “And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God” (Isaiah 8:21).

If our hearts are not filled with the love of God, mere orthodoxy about God cannot suffice. Indeed, our orthodoxy about God only intensifies our frustration and rage, because we are experiencing less than we ourselves profess is real. But if our spiritual starvation diet goes undiagnosed and unremedied, we inevitably reveal our soul-deprivation toward God as we mistreat one another. That is when a believer can become as brutal as an atheist. But our orthodoxy conceals it, even justifies it.

Reality with God and beauty with one another--these two dynamics always go together. When our churches lose real experience of God in his grace and glory, we will lash out against one another--and find a way to rationalize it.

The only remedy is to go back. In humility and honesty, we must retrace our steps and figure out how we departed from the Lord and how we have wronged others. We cannot hope for blessing in the future until we seek God’s forgiveness for the past, reengaging with him and reconciling with others, setting our feet back on the path of an honest walk with God, according to the gospel, moment-by-moment. Then we are free to face the future with glad expectancy.

The vertical and the horizontal are always inseparable. God himself has made it so.

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5 thoughts on “‘I went all the way back’”

  1. Josh Mejia says:

    Hi brother Ray, in case you’d like to add a link to the Eternity Magazine article (from the Schaeffer online library) to your blog post, here is the link:

    Thankful for your helpful blog!

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thanks, Josh!

  2. Ken Isakson says:

    It’s good to know that it’s not just me that has/is struggled with the dichotomy of walk and talk. So many years of getting it wrong and so little time left to get it right. Thank you very much for this article.

    1. Ed Scott says:

      Well said, Ken….me too.

  3. Keri says:

    Dear Pastor Ray, I am so happy to have read this post. I just finished your book “The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ”. I must admit prior to that I have not heard of you and your work. But while reading I was immediately captivated by the way you write – the passionate love you have for the Lord and the unsaved, and the Church! and so I search for your blog.

    I must say I have the same experience as you and Schaeffer. I started reading Schaeffer a year ago and although people praised him for his theological insight, I was more impressed by how he was heartbroken by seeing the lack of love and grace among the body of Christ. I was actually comforted that someone like him had felt the same way.

    You are so right that “There is a reason why people who believe God is love treat one another with unlove. The reason is not a lack of theological orthodoxy about God. The reason is a lack of personal reality with God.” I have never lost any faith in any orthodox doctrines but I was crushed many times because I didn’t experience the “reality” like you mentioned. I learned a lot of knowledge, but I didn’t taste much grace. Maybe because I am a girl who gets emotional easily, there were times I cried alone in bed asking the Lord, why are Your people tearing each other apart while we are of one Lord and one Spirit?

    In your book, you write that with gospel doctrine comes gospel culture. When the gospel culture doesn’t come, it is essentially a denial of the gospel doctrine. I think our problem today is we take doctrine as mere brain knowledge, but experience little life of Christ. But when we experience Christ as our life, the fruit will naturally outflow from Him not from us. There is simply no way to deny that power and love. I remember when Hank Hanegraff explained why he “left” the evangelical church for eastern orthodox is exactly because despite having lots of knowledge, he had not experienced much the reality of the union with Christ. He said, “I saw Chinese Christians who were deeply in love with the Lord, and I learned that while they may not have had as much intellectual acumen or knowledge as I did, they had life.” Not here to comment on his decision but his words say something.

    Your words are encouraging and praise God we can nail all our problems to the cross and experience the Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life. I thank you for your work and your heart, and I pray that you live in His power and joy everyday :-).

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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